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Specialized Knowledge

A number of readers’ questions seem narrowly focused and specific. For example: What is the nature of turbulence? Why are human females smaller than males? How is the North Pacific High generated? What are the short-term dynamics of solar-type stars? Can we develop synthetic photosynthesis? Can we understand the fundamental principals of catalysts? What causes ice ages? How does a mirror work? What causes ball lightning?

All of these questions are fascinating, but I wouldn’t place them anywhere near the top of my own list. Still, determining such rankings is a subjective process that the scientific community faces all the time. Ranking comes most forcefully into play in the day-to-day world in the awarding of prizes and research grants. Academic prizes and the prestige associated with them are usually conferred for work perceived as fundamental and basic. Ernest Rutherford’s discovery of the atomic nucleus, Linus Pauling’s explanation of the chemical bond, and James Watson and Francis Crick’s unraveling of the structure of DNA were all recognized by Nobel Prizes. Prestigious periodicals such as Science and Nature may only have space for 10 percent of all submissions. Thus, acceptances are based in large measure on the perceived importance of the question being addressed.

Research grants, on the other hand, are usually awarded by government agencies-the Departments of Commerce, Health and Human Services, Defense, and Energy, for example-that have specific pragmatic goals in mind. Many scientists, accordingly, become adept at rationalizing their pursuit of basic research by demonstrating how this research is essential to solving applied problems.

Clearly, the relative importance that we attach to questions is highly subjective. Every culture asks different questions, reflecting their varied beliefs and experiences. All cultures wonder at one time or another about the vast scale of the universe and the ancient origin of life. Not all cultures, however, ask how many stars exist or the exact age of fossil species, much less how these objects evolve. Ultimately, asking the right question at the right time is a key part of the art of doing science.

Way Beyond Science

Perhaps the most fascinating of reader responses were the numerous questions that are, by broad consensus, outside the domain of science. A few examples: Is there a god? What happened before the Big Bang? What happens after death? What is the nature of evil? Is the universe infinite? Are there realms of consciousness or reality that we do not normally perceive?

Science addresses only those questions that can be answered by reproducible observations, controlled experiments, and theory guided by mathematical logic. This distinction between scientific and nonscientitfic inquiry, though sometimes blurred, is neither frivolous nor arbitrary.

Science can reveal if a painting is old, but it cannot determine if the painting is beautiful. It may be used to deduce the origins of the physical universe, but it cannot rationalize why we are here to ponder its existence. Many of the most important questions we face-What is the meaning of life? Whom should I marry? Is there a God?-thus lie outside its domain. Such a realization led economist and philosopher Kenneth Boulding to remark, only partly in jest: “Science is the art of substituting unimportant questions that can be answered for important questions that cannot.”

A few questions that lie at the boundaries of science are more difficult to classify. Scientists are divided, for example, regarding questions that several readers proposed regarding extrasensory perception, precognition, numerology, and psychokinesis. While many researchers lump these ideas into the broad category of pseudoscience, reproducible experiments can be performed to test individuals who claim to possess such abilities.

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